Spinal meningitis, also known simply as meningitis, is a potentially life-threatening infection of the membranes and fluid that surround the brain and spinal cord. The infectious agents that cause this disease usually can be contained and eliminated by the body’s immune system. However, once the infection gets into the bloodstream, it can quickly make its way into the cerebrospinal fluid, eventually causing inflammation in and around the brain and spinal cord. The infection’s symptoms differ somewhat between adults and children.
Symptoms in Adults
Adult symptoms of meningitis, according to the Cedars-Sinai Health System, may include headache, high fever, muscle spasms, pain radiating from the spine, joint pain, sensitivity to light, drowsiness, fatigue, heavy perspiration, weight loss, vomiting and possible seizures.
The symptoms of meningitis in children are somewhat different than those seen in adults, although there is some overlap, according to Cedars-Sinai. Children’s symptoms may include lethargy, resistance to being touched or handled, a blank expression, fever that may be accompanied by coldness in the hands and/or feet, and an aching back. Other possible symptoms in children include a profound loss of appetite and resultant refusal to eat, whimpering or high-pitched cries, skin paleness or blotchiness, and vomiting.
Meningitis can be caused by viral, bacterial or even fungal infections, according to eMedTV. It also can occur as a complication of such diseases as cancer and lupus, as a consequence of traumatic injury to the head or spine, or in reaction to certain medical treatments or medications. By far the most common and least dangerous form of meningitis is caused by viruses. The resultant infection is serious but rarely fatal. Bacterial meningitis is much more serious and can quickly spiral out of control if not treated promptly. Meningitis death and disability is caused most often by the bacterial form of the disease.
Risk Factors and Complications
Although viral meningitis is seen most often in children under the age of 5, the median age for bacterial meningitis has climbed in recent years to 25. Young children once were highly susceptible to the bacterial form of the disease, but widespread childhood vaccinations against multiple bacterial agents have reversed that trend. Others at risk include pregnant women, people living in close quarters with others, people working with animals and those with compromised immune systems. Left untreated, meningitis may cause serious neurological damage or even death.
Intravenous antibiotics are the treatment of choice for bacterial meningitis, according to MayoClinic.com. Doctors probably will take a sample of cerebrospinal fluid to pinpoint the bacterium responsible for the infection and thus determine the specific type of antibiotic to be used. Most cases of viral meningitis will resolve on their own within a week or two, with over-the-counter medications used to relieve the symptoms of fever, headache and joint pain. In extreme cases, antivirals may be prescribed.